In the early-evening hours of Feb. 13, 2022, Nic Hill left his family’s Phoenix home, drove to a nearby gas station and cried. He cried because of what he’d seen, cried because of what it meant, cried because it was Odell Beckham Jr. there on that SoFi Stadium field, clutching his knee, unable to get up in Super Bowl LVI.

“That was probably one of the lowest moments of my career, yeah,” Hill, a strength and speed coach for the high-performance training company Exos, said in a recent interview. He’d helped train the Los Angeles Rams’ superstar wide receiver for years. He was more than a client. “A special person,” Hill called him, “and like a brother to me.”

Hill reached out to Graeme Lauriston, a physical therapist who’d long worked with Beckham. He reached out to Beckham. “Hey, let me know,” he remembered asking them.

“But we knew,” Hill said softly, the anguish still fresh. “We knew immediately that it was the ACL again.”

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INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 13: Odell Beckham Jr. #3 of the Los Angeles Rams lies on the ground following an injury during the first half of Super Bowl LVI against the Cincinnati Bengals at SoFi Stadium on February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Odell Beckham Jr. #3 of the Los Angeles Rams lies on the ground following an injury during the first half of Super Bowl LVI against the Cincinnati Bengals at SoFi Stadium on February 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

So began one of the highest-profile recoveries in recent NFL history: a 19-month rehabilitation that spanned three seasons and several continents, fueled by Beckham’s abiding love of football, financed by the deep pockets it’s given him, starting with one Super Bowl title and perhaps culminating in another.

Beckham’s playoff journey in Baltimore, which starts Saturday with the Ravens’ divisional-round game against the Houston Texans, is inextricable from his last playoff journey. He entered the 2021 postseason without a functional ACL. He enters this postseason with a rebuilt knee. He is stronger now, those close to him say, hungrier after a season away from the game. This is the OBJ the Ravens wanted. This is what he wanted, too.

“It’s been a long 2 1/2 years, so it all boils down to this,” he said Tuesday before a crowd of reporters and cameras in the Ravens’ locker room, the center of attention once more. “We only have four or five days guaranteed left. Everything else, you earn after that. Everything else after that, you’ve earned. I don’t think anybody in this building takes it lightly. Such a long journey, and you’re getting towards the end. It’s like you might as well reap the benefits of all the hard work you put in.”

‘Holding my breath’

Long before that fateful second-quarter crossing pattern against the Cincinnati Bengals, long before his first Super Bowl appearance ended in tears, Beckham knew his left knee was not all right.

After the Rams’ NFC championship game win over the San Francisco 49ers, Beckham remembered sharing a knowing look with Cooper Kupp. The All-Pro wide receiver understood what only a select few in Beckham’s orbit did: that his ACL had retracted. Rams team physician Neal ElAttrache, upon inspecting Beckham’s knee after his midseason arrival, had suggested he undergo another operation. Just over a year earlier, with the Cleveland Browns, Beckham had torn the ACL in the same knee for the first time, ending his 2020 season.

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This time, Beckham would play on. The knee, even damaged, was still viable, Hill said, strengthened during his last rehab. In the Rams’ playoff opener, Beckham caught four passes for 54 yards and a touchdown in a blowout win over the Arizona Cardinals. In the divisional round, he had six catches for 69 yards in a comeback win over quarterback Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Against the 49ers, he had nine catches for 113 yards, his most in any game since 2019.

“Every kind of cut and turn, or anytime he went down funny,” Hill said, “I was always holding my breath, holding my breath.”

“I’m happy that this [Super Bowl] is our last game,” Beckham remembered telling Kupp after the NFC championship game, “because I couldn’t do another one.”

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Worldwide rehab

Less than two weeks after the Super Bowl, Beckham announced he’d undergone successful knee surgery. “If there’s one thing I can take from all the work and growth,” he wrote on Instagram, “it is that I AM as resilient as they come.”

The next year would test his patience. Beckham’s initial hope was to return during the 2022 regular season; ESPN reported in mid-November that he’d started to receive free-agent offers and was expected to sign after Thanksgiving. But no deal was struck.

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In December, ESPN reported the Dallas Cowboys, after a visit with Beckham, had “concerns” that his recovery from the torn ACL “has not progressed enough to ensure he would play before mid-January.” The postseason came and went. Beckham remained unsigned.

“Mentally, I think he was in one of the best spaces that I’ve seen him since I’ve known him,” said David Alexander, the Miami-based owner and founder of the training facility DBC Fitness, who started working with Beckham after the Super Bowl. Alexander pointed to the reporting about Beckham’s Cowboys visit. “That kind of amplified him, and I think he was kind of like, ‘All right, well, let me get in the lab here and let me show everyone that that’s not the narrative.’”

Beckham’s torn ACL was not unusual; the only complications in his rehab were a meniscus that needed repairing and an Achilles tendon that needed strengthening. Otherwise, Hill said, “an ACL rehab is an ACL rehab is an ACL rehab.”

What was extraordinary, though, were the lengths Beckham went to in seeing his rehab through. He found himself in a delicate spot, managing not only his recovery but also his business portfolio. “Odell isn’t just a normal football player,” Alexander said. “He’s a brand.” And brands need to take business trips every once in a while.

So, when Beckham was in Phoenix, he worked out with Hill at Exos.

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And, when Beckham was in the Bahamas, he worked out with Jimmy Mackey at MacFit360 Fitness & Performance Center.

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And, when Beckham was in Miami, he worked out with Sharif Tabbah at Alkeme Sports Rx or Alexander at DBC Fitness.

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And, when Beckham was in Bradenton, Florida, he worked out at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute.

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And, when Beckham was in Dubai for a few weeks — flown over, naturally, in a double-deck airliner replete with a bar and lounge area — his management team made sure there was a facility nearby where he could work out with Hill.

“He has a very real understanding of, ‘I’m living my life and I want to enjoy my life, and there’s opportunities that I have that I can take advantage of — but the work is the work, and the work needs to get done,’” said Hill, who’s also rehabbed with Beckham in Milan. “And he’s very serious about it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a late dinner; we’re up and we’re training in the morning. So he’s very meticulous about what needs to get done, and his work ethic is unmatched.”

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“I think being at peace is really the most important thing,” Beckham said. “And, for a couple of years in a row now, I’ve done rehab and been in one place, and life just starts to feel mundane. And, once it starts to feel mundane, I feel like you can slip into a slippery slope. And for anybody who’s had major injuries or had your future in doubt or thinking the worst of things — things could be over, blah, blah, blah — it’s just very hard to maintain a positive mindset all the time. So … whatever makes you happy and keeps you at peace and able to continue going, I think it’s necessary to do it.”

‘Everything we needed to see’

On March 10, Ravens assistant wide receivers coach Keith Williams arrived at Arizona State’s practice facility to watch Beckham run. The receiver-needy Ravens had monitored his progress since October, according to general manager Eric DeCosta. Here, finally, was their chance to see him work out in person.

“We just wanted to see, No. 1, how does he move, body control — all the things we look for in any player, really,” DeCosta would later say. “How’s he catching the ball? How’s he adjusting to the ball? Just mechanically, is he able to drop his weight? Burst, quickness, speed, agility, conditioning as well.”

Hill had scripted the workout. With representatives from about a dozen teams reportedly in attendance, he’d wanted to show “the full spectrum” of Beckham’s abilities. So Beckham ran one route after another, hitting the whole tree, pushing through exhaustion and pain.

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Near the end of the workout, Hill called the teams’ reps over. He asked whether there was anything more they still wanted to see. One coach, Hill recalled, requested an “in-and-out,” a 10-yard in-breaking route that veers suddenly into an out-breaking route. Another litmus test for Beckham’s knee.

Beckham, still winded, ran the final route near the goal line, ending the workout with a signature flourish: a one-handed, across-his-body grab in the end zone. “All right, guys,” Hill announced. “That’s it.”

One month later, Beckham signed a one-year, $15 million deal with the Ravens.

“We saw everything we needed to see, knowing that it’s going to just improve,” DeCosta said at his introductory news conference in April. “That’s the thing — when a guy has a serious injury in general, it only gets better. It may take time; sometimes it takes longer, but it only gets better. What we saw was extremely encouraging, and I can’t wait to see the progression from March to April to May to September. That’s probably the thing that we’re most excited about. We’re getting somebody who’s ready to explode again, and he’s in the right environment with the right quarterback, with the right team, in the right city. It’s the perfect player at the perfect time.”

Investing in himself

His knee, though, was far from perfect. When Alexander assessed Beckham early last summer, he estimated that he was “probably about 60% of where he needed to be.”

The soft tissue around Beckham’s injured knee had suffered significant trauma. There were knots to sort out and adhesions to address. He needed stretching and dry needling, massages and cupping therapy.

“That’s a lot of work, man,” Alexander said.

Beckham knew he needed it. Hill, who’s worked with scores of sports stars, called Beckham “probably the most self-aware athlete” he’s worked with, owing to his understanding of how his body should feel. “He can just really dial into the little things,” Hill said.

Every so often, when Beckham was in Miami, Alexander would get a late-evening call, asking to meet at the facility. “Let’s do a stretch; let’s do some tissue work; let’s get in the cold plunge,” Alexander recalled Beckham telling him.

At one point in the summer, Beckham let Alexander know he’d swing by to work on his mechanics — but only after he’d met up with quarterback Lamar Jackson at 6 a.m. to catch passes and then taken a nap.

“He took the recovery very serious, and I thought that was great,” Alexander said. “A lot of athletes can come down to Miami and get distracted, and that wasn’t the case with him.”

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Beckham’s rehab was as intensive as it was expensive. Asked whether he spent over $1 million on his body last offseason — more than triple what former Ravens defensive lineman Calais Campbell budgets for his own upkeep — Beckham answered without hesitation: “Easy. Without even a question.”

“I don’t think people understand, nor do they care … [that] there’s a lot of money that goes into maintaining and doing these things for your body,” Beckham said. “So if anybody wants to be out there, forget your parlays, forget your fantasy football. If anybody wants to be out there, it’s me. I spend time and effort outside the nine to 10 hours a day, or however long it is we spend in here, to work on my body, to put in extra work. So, at the end of the day, your health is most important. And there’s nobody who wants to be out on the field for me more than me.”

Trending up

Beckham’s comeback season has been productive but not perfect. He dealt with an ankle injury in September and October, then a shoulder injury in October and November. He finished the regular season with 35 catches for 565 yards and three touchdowns, far from the heights of his All-Pro years with the New York Giants.

Even at age 31, though, the hope is that Beckham can turn back the clock. He hit 19.92 mph on his 40-yard score against the Cleveland Browns in Week 10, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Beckham’s second-fastest speed as a ball carrier since his first ACL tear. He reached 20.54 mph as he ran after running back Gus Edwards on his 80-yard catch-and-run in Week 7 against the Detroit Lions, his third-fastest time in that same span.

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When he wakes up each morning, Beckham does not think about his knee. There have been other bothers this season, he said, but not his knee, not now.

“A lot of things happened this season that just didn’t allow me to be my very best at times, and it just was something that I had to deal with,” Beckham said. “And it’s unfortunate. It’s like, you just want to be able to play. Nobody’s ever going to be completely pain free, but when you’re limited and not being able to be you, it just sucks. So some things happened this season, but I feel like I’m trending in the right direction. I hope that God continues to provide that healing energy over me, and I’m able to continue going upward.”

“Odell has been through so much, and he’s worked so hard, and it hasn’t been easy,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday. “There is a lot of pain involved there over the course of the last two years, and even throughout the course of the season, in terms of working through the different challenges. He’s at his best right now. You see him out there — he looks really good, he’s moving around excellent, fast, he’s catching the ball, he’s running great routes — so I’m looking forward to seeing what he does here.”

Beckham’s arrival in Baltimore has been its own reward. Less than a month after he signed with the Ravens, Jackson agreed to a long-awaited contract extension. At training camp in Owings Mills, thousands chanted their name. As Jackson stormed down the stretch to a likely second NFL Most Valuable Player award, Beckham’s miraculous catches and colorful celebrations helped fill out the team’s highlight reels.

The NFL is a business, Beckham acknowledged last month, but it’s “the game of football that we love.” He wants to enjoy every moment he has playing it.

“It just speaks to who he is not just as a football player but as a person,” Hill said. “Mentally, to go through two ACLs back to back like that, and then for it to be in the situation that it was — the Super Bowl — I mean, you’re talking about emotional peaks that can’t get much higher. … He’s so strong, mentally and emotionally, to be able to get through that and to come out and be smiling going into the playoffs right now. He’s just so happy and thankful and grateful and positive.”

Because, Beckham said, he believes in himself. Because he believes in his body.